Lebanon’s Cemeteries of People and Ideas

“Parking lots are mass graves here.”

It took some time to move past researcher Malena Eichenberg’s words.  I was reading about Lebanon’s disappeared. This is every civil war’s chilling catchphrase, I thought. Any two fratricides may not meet in cause, triggers, pace, length, or brutality, but they are almost certain to meet in what lies under many a parking lot.

There are around 100 such burial sites in Lebanon, all legacies of the 1975-1990 Civil War. They are the locations of many of the disappeared, who count anywhere between 8000 and 17,000. It has been 32 years since the supposed end of the conflict, but the state, apparently, does not want to put this ordeal to rest lest it perhaps awakens the demons of our bloodshed.

God help me for saying this. Soon after moving to Beirut in 1991, I came to realize that Lebanon is its own mass grave of ideas. Ideas of the grand variety, that is. The idea of Lebanon, for one: Lebanon as a meaningful entity; as a consociational democracy; as an economic marvel. These are not to be confused, of course, with the myths: Lebanon as a gem inside a mystery inside a conundrum inside a miracle; as Houdini; as the center of the world…

The myths, remarkably, still have many adherents. The titanic ideas, however, met a sure death not because of the war’s rude awakenings, but because of the peace that refused to draw any lessons from them. In their wake, many petty ideas began to circulate, some innovations on old silliness, others entirely new in their cluelessness. The pettiest of these is the proposition of several tiny Lebanons, all cleansed and set free to do their own thing; in the mind of its owners, a constellation of Monte Carlos and Kandahars. One equal to it is the presumption that one sect, through intimidation and corrupt, self-serving alliances, can actually reign supreme.

Many towering non-Lebanese personages and their times died on this soil as well. Such was Lebanon’s capacious theater of causes, revolutions, and intrigues. In one particular cemetery they wither together as relics of their glorious yesteryears. This cemetery sits on the edge of the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut’s southern suburbs, within walking distance of the camp’s two mass graves: one of the victims of the 1982 massacre by the Lebanese Forces under the helpful watch of the Israeli army; the other of the fighters who fell in the clashes between the Amal Movement and the PLO.

Appropriately, the cemetery is called The Martyrs of the Revolution. Palestinian martyrs, to be more specific, and others who died in the name of Palestine. Much like the cause itself for its living supporters, and we are many, the cemetery is a mix of nationalities and faiths and professions and backgrounds and fame and motivations.

We have, for example, Francoise Kesterman, the rebel daughter of French rebels. She started out in 1980 as a nurse volunteer in the Rashidiya camp in the south and died in 1984 as one of three doomed Fatah fighters in a failed operation against Israel.  

Ghassan Kanafani is also buried in the cemetery. The poet, novelist, and leading member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) lies there alongside his 17-year-old niece, Lamis. They were blown up by Mossad in 1972. Kanafani was 36.

A few steps away rests Ali Hassan Salameh, one of Yasser Arafat’s top Lieutenants, who went the same way in 1979. In the Lebanon of those years, none of Arafat’s men rivaled Salameh’s versatility, flair, and reach. For many, he personified the PLO’s penchant for play and perks. For others, he was assassinated by Israel precisely because of his extraordinary political savvy and love of the fight. Salameh’s marriage to Georgina Rizk, 1971’s Miss Universe, only two years before his assassination, spoke to that side of his highflying life. His growing closeness to the CIA’s Robert Ames spoke to this side. He was also 36 when he died.

Kamal Kheir Beik, the Syrian poet and member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), is in the vicinity. He was murdered in 1980 on the streets of Beirut, along with two other party members. He was 45.   

The Cemetery of The Martyrs is featured in the August issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. It inspired this post. For Nicolas Dot-Pouillard and Pierre Tonachella, the authors of the piece, “In this place of the dead, a connection with living history remains.” True. The struggle for Palestine remains. The suffering of Palestinians remains. The verse of Kanafani and Kheir Beik remains. There are vivid remains of Salameh in books, films, and documentaries. The PLO remains, and so does the PFLP. Even the SSNP remains.

And in the remains of these once-dominant names and parties one can read the magnitude of the shifting tides of the past 40 years. Instead of one cause célèbre, now a handful; instead of one cataclysm, many. The Palestinian-Israeli debacle has transformed, as has the identity and geography of its warriors. The entire Arab-Israeli landscape has transformed. The Levant we have long known is gone and the new one has yet to take shape. The old ideological parties, too, have faded; in their place the void, there to be filled by good people, or by bad people to exploit.

I look at the cemetery from a short distance. I look at these graves, a few shaded by trees, most exposed to the sun’s searing rays. I look at the posters, Ghassan Kanafani’s on the far wall straight ahead, Salameh’s on the left a few meters in, Arafat’s and Mohamoud Abbas’ at the main gate. The plot is neither small nor big. In some places, you have to walk between tombs, they are so close-knit.  

I look back at the 1970s and early ‘80s, when I was in my teens but awake to momentous events. It’s as if another world–and not. 


On Another Note

I listened here to a very interesting conversation between Marc Lynch and Michael Provence, author of  The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East. The book focuses on the often ignored turn of the 20th century Arab elites and their story with the region’s new French and British colonial masters in those pivotal post-World War I years.

Have a listen! On June 23rd,  Carnegie’s Mohanad al Hage held a webinar with several seasoned observers and scholars on The Political Crisis in Iraq: Any Hope for Change?   I found the discussion illuminating.

The Rain In Lagos, by Adewale Maja-Pearce in the London Review of Books, is a wonderful read. Here’s a peek:

“As it happens, the city’s many creeks and lagoons – hence Lagos, from the Portuguese for lakes – could solve the traffic problem once and for all, especially during the rains. There are ferries which are theoretically both faster and cheaper than going by road, but they often break down and have been known to go the wrong way and get lost in the bush.”




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